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Us vs. Them: Social Identity Theory

If one were to examine the fundamental societal and psychological maladies facing the world today, one might be surprised to find that at the root of so many of these problems is a fundamental distinction; the grouping of other humans and societies into an in-group or an out-group. Regarding social problems, the distinction is quite clear; questions of international relations, social capital, war, and politics are all heavily influenced by in-group and out-group dynamics, and the resulting biases these distinctions impress upon the collective psyche.

In-group and out-group distinctions also have profound effects on the individual. The categorizations people make daily not only influence the attitudes they have towards other individuals and social groups but even determine how they come to view themselves.

To explain how and why people make these in-group and out-group judgments, and to investigate the social effects of these categorizations, this article will begin with a basic review of Social Identity Theory and then, will conclude by discussing the societal implications of the theory.

Belchev, D. (2019). Black and Gray Graffiti Wall art. [Photograph]. Unsplash.

Social Identity Theory

First developed by Tajfel and Turner in the 1970s, Social Identity Theory sets out from the idea that a person's identity in an intergroup setting is based on their group membership, or which social groups they identify with (Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C., 1979). In determining one’s group membership there are three mental processes: social categorization, social identification, and social comparison (Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C.,1979).

In general, categorization is the mental process by which the mind simplifies a complex reality in order to make sense of it. Social categorization is a similar process, whereby the mind filters people into categories with set characteristics in order to quickly and easily understand them and make judgments about them (Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C.,1979).

Social identification, or self identification, is the process by which people sort themselves into one of these categories and assume, in part, the characteristics they associate with that category. What is important here, according to Tajfel and Turner, is that individuals “who perceive themselves to be members of the same social category share some emotional involvement in this common definition of themselves… and strive to enhance or maintain their self esteem”(Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. ,1979). Since the individual’s status is bound up with the group’s status, and the evaluation of one’s group status is determined by comparing it with other social groups, the result is a tendency to make favorable comparisons of the in-group vis a vis an out-group. Therefore, “To maintain positive social identity, people engage in intergroup social comparisons that demonstrate a favorable bias toward their in-group [and] display discriminatory behaviors toward out-groups” (Brewer, 1979).

Purisic, M. (2015). Crowd at a Party. [Photograph]. Unsplash.

Consequences of In-groups and Out-groups

The individual implications of this behavior are extensive. In interactions with out-groups, studies have shown people to be less trusting and empathetic (Hein et al., 2015), while also being more hostile and polarized (Sampasivam et al., 2016). There is also a lack of understanding between individuals. This is a result of the mass categorization of others, which is simply a mental shortcut which leads to an incorrect labeling of an individual. In other words, when a person assigns an individual identity, they also assign them the stereotypical characteristics they believe are associated with that identity, while they themselves take on the perceived stereotypical characteristics of the group they self identify as (Turner, 1985).

In both cases, this mental shortcut necessarily leads to a false understanding of reality, as it completely fails to appreciate the actual nuanced characteristics of an individual. These quick mental judgments condition how people view their own identity and who they view in their in-group or out-group. Consequently, their own identity conditions who they treat selflessly and empathetically (in-group), and conversely who they view as a threat and discriminate against.

Even more dire are the societal implications. In a global society which emphasizes competing identities and a lack of empathy for out-groups, conflict is highly probable. In fact, through the lens of international relations, the driving force behind international conflict and instability is the lack of trust between nations in the absence of a moderating force (Milner, 1991). This lack of trust is formed on the basis of in-group and out-group dynamics, whereby the people and leaders of one nation believe that people and leaders from other nations cannot be trusted and are a threat.

The prevalence of in-group and out-group thinking is also a characteristic of nationalist politics. It is common in the elections of nearly every country on earth to have certain political parties whose whole platform is based on the biased out-group discrimination of a certain-group (Marchlewska et al., 2017). Though the purpose of this is to solidify in-group cohesion, the effect on a macro scale is normally polarization and a fragmentation of national identity (Marchlewska et al., 2017). At its most extreme, in-group and out-group politics can form the justification for atrocities, and can serve as a potent tool of propaganda.

Spratt, A. (2015). Down Roads We Go. [Photograph]. Unsplash.


What is encouraging is that more research is being undertaken to better understand social identity theory and how to mitigate its negative effects. Much of this research has focused on determining the plasticity of identity and of in-group-out-group relations. In this sense, it is widely understood that identity can change, and different identities are more or less salient depending on the context. It has even been suggested that the simple act of receiving help from an out-group member results in empathetic neurological reaction in study patients (Hein et al., 2015).

It would seem that Social Identity Theory may hold the key to a powerful tool; if social identity is indeed fluid, it logically leads to the possibility of including in an in-group the whole of humanity based on our shared identity. The result would be the development of an altruistic nature towards all human beings, and potentially all living beings. If individuals can learn to look beyond the socially constructed identities that have been adopted unconsciously, they can see the truth which is at the end of the line, the truest identity, one that is not socially constructed or relative, is being human.

Bibliographical References.

Brewer, M. B. (1979). In-group bias in the minimal intergroup situation: A cognitive-motivational analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 86(2), 307–324.

Hein, G., Engelmann, J. B., Vollberg, M. C., & Tobler, P. N. (2015). How learning shapes the empathic brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(1), 80–85.

Marchlewska, M., Cichocka, A., Panayiotou, O., Castellanos, K., & Batayneh, J. (2017). Populism as Identity Politics. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 9(2), 151–162.

Milner, H. (1991). The assumption of anarchy in international relations theory: a critique. Review of International Studies, 17(01), 67–85.

‌Sampasivam, S., Collins, K., Bielajew, C., & Clément, R. (2016). The Effects of Outgroup Threat and Opportunity to Derogate on Salivary Cortisol Levels. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 13(6), 616.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. G. Austin, & S. Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 33-37). Monterey, CA Brooks/Cole. - References - Scientific Research Publishing. (n.d.).

Visual Sources:

Belchev, D. (2019). Black and Gray Graffiti Wall art. [Photograph]. Unsplash.

Purisic, M. (2015). Crowd at a Party. [Photograph]. Unsplash.

Spratt, A. (2015). Down Roads We Go. [Photograph]. Unsplash.


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Taylor Pace

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